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What is the Tooth Fairy?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The tooth fairy is a legendary good fairy who collects teeth as children lose them, offering coins in exchange. She is part of a large and complex cultural tradition of good and bad fairies, and children all over the world leave teeth for the tooth fairy in the hopes of seeing some money in the morning. In some cultures, instead of money, children receive a treat or a toy from the tooth fairy, with some spoilsport tooth fairies leaving presents like toothbrushes or floss to encourage children to take care of their budding adult teeth.

Before delving into the story of the tooth fairy, you might be interested in hearing some background. Many cultures have a long history of superstition surrounding the loss of the milk teeth, the teeth which children use in their early years. In some societies, the loss of the milk or “baby” teeth is viewed as a rite of passage, with the loss of the teeth signaling a transition into adulthood. A history of performing some sort of ritual act with lost teeth is ancient.

Tied in with beliefs about the loss of the milk teeth are beliefs about witchcraft. Many cultures used to believe (and some still do) that if a witch manages to obtain a part of someone's body, he or she can use that body part to perform black magic. Milk teeth would be a prime target for witches, along with things like fingernail clippings and scraps of hair. As a result, many cultures had a tradition of putting milk teeth into safekeeping to ensure that they would not enter the hands of witches.

Historically, some people buried milk teeth, fed them to animals, or saved them so that they could keep an eye on them. As early as the 1600s, legends about fairies who collected baby teeth began to arise, but it wasn't until the early 1900s that people started leaving offerings for the tooth fairy. This good fairy is supposed to take care of lost milk teeth, ensuring that their owner grows up healthy and strong.

The tradition of leaving money behind in exchange for a tooth also reflects very old beliefs about fairies. In English folklore especially, there is a long tradition of leaving gifts for fairies and receiving presents in return. The fairies are in a sense rewarding the people who offer them assistance, and in the case of the tooth fairy, the money is an expression of thanks for the tooth, and a reward for bearing the discomfort associated with losing milk teeth.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments
By WaterHopper — On Oct 23, 2010

@oceanswimmer: Some of the common answers to our children’s questions of “Where did my teeth go” are:

They were given to newborn babies who don’t have teeth yet.

They were given to Santa to put in dolls that they make in their workshop.

They were turned into seashells for fish to live in.

The teeth were turned into the stars in the sky.

The fairy grinds them into fairy dust that she uses when she flies.

They are used to make tooth castles in the sky.

Those are some of the responses that I have heard over the years from various people.

By OceanSwimmer — On Oct 23, 2010

Some kids have been told that a mouse comes and takes the teeth and leaves a treasure under the pillow. This story came after the publication of “La Bonne Petite Souris,” from the 18th Century. The mouse in the story hides under the pillow of the evil King. The mouse then changes into a fairy and knocks out all of the King’s teeth. Eventually, the story changed the mouse to a fairy.

So, what do we, as parents, tell our children the tooth fairy did with their teeth?

By BoatHugger — On Oct 23, 2010

Back in the day, the Vikings used to pay their children a “tooth fee”. It was a fee for the use of the children’s teeth. The teeth were taken and then strung onto a necklace or other jewelry. The Vikings strongly believed the power of the children’s teeth would help to aid them in battle.

Another story was, as the article stated, the teeth were hidden from witches or evil spirits so that they couldn’t be used to place curses. The tooth would often be planted in a garden near the house. In doing so, that assured that the new adult tooth would grow in its place.

By bubblebee24 — On Jul 26, 2009

i have seen a fairy before so don't go and diss them and saying that they are mythical creatures!

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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